Nature mag to debut

During his time here, Stephen Kovari ’19 says he’s spotted barred owls, great horned owls, bald eagles, red foxes, coyotes, bobcats, skunks, Virginia opossums, minks, muskrats and more. / Courtesy of Stephan Kovari

Aside from the occasional deer or “womp womp” spotting, Vassar students often fail to take note of the diversity of our surrounding ecosystems. To remedy this, Stephen Kovari ’19 is bringing to light the array of lesser-known critters around campus and the work that the Vassar Farm and Ecological Preserve (VFEP) does to sustain these creatures living conditions with VC Nature, a new wildlife newsletter.

Kovari said of his mission, “In terms of wildlife, people have a lot of neighbors that they are completely unaware ofó Iíve photographed bobcats and coyotes on the Vassar Ecological Preserve, and we get photos of them on our motion activated trail cameras all the time at the preserve. To some, itís a bit unnerving having bobcats and coyotes in their yards or their campus. We want people to embrace the fact that they are here, and the best way to do that is to raise awareness and educate people about how important they are to our ecosystem.”

The newsletter will focus on sightings, encouraging students to submit photographs or contribute in any possible way to the goal of broadening community awareness. Kovari noted, with regard to bobcats and coyotes, that predators that we don’t commonly recognize as a part of the immediate ecosystem play an integral role in maintaining the conditions that affect not only the lives of other animals, but the resident humans as well. He elaborated: “Predators exhibit strong top down controls on an ecosystem and can drastically change the structure (usually by keeping herbivore populations in check and introducing “the ecology of fear” (how herbivores change their behavior in the presence of carnivores) and health of an ecosystem for the better. When considering things like Lyme disease, predator communities can be vital in keeping infection rates down because they reduce small rodent populations.”

Collaborating with Kovari and serving as a supervisor on the project is Manager of the Field Station and Ecological Preserve Keri VanCamp. VanCamp, like Kovari (who hopes that the newsletter will feature topics ranging from weather and climate to botany and geology) is excited to have students of disparate interests get a feel for phenology, geology and weather. In addition to improving students’ respect for/knowledge of the local wildlife, VanCamp expects VC Nature to showcase all of the work that the Farm and Ecological Preserve puts into preservation efforts and educational pursuits. She also believes that the Farm/Preserve could benefit from an influx in volunteers, and hopes that the newsletter will assist in mobilizing student activists.

She said, “I think that the Vassar Farm and Ecological Preserve (VFEP) is a wonderful resource for our campus community. We actively maintain a variety of habitats to try and support a diversity of organisms. For example, we mow the fields in the central area to keep them as early successional habitat. Old fields are important habitats for birds and pollinators and are rapidly disappearing from the landscape in the northeast. It was not that long ago that the VFEP was a working farm. The signs of the recent disturbance, past land use, and current human impact can be seen almost everywhere you look. Some of the biggest challenges we face are from invasive species and degradation from overuse/misuse.” She noted, “We do our best to prioritize issues and try to strategically manage problems. However, the scale of these problems is often too large for us to manage. There are many things that we could do to better manage the land if we had more people to help. My SCA intern, Kathryn Davison, and I are currently working on developing a volunteer program to get people involved with stewardship on the preserve. If people are interested in helping take care of the preserve and really making a difference, they should contact us.”

The idea for VC Nature was conceived of by Professor of Biology David Jemiolo as a campus-specific version of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservationís Hudson River Almanac. Jemiolo said of the newsletter’s origins, “I ran into Carlie Graves (who is married to John McCleary in the math department) in the fitness center early one morning. We were talking about seeing foxes on the golf course and she asked me if I knew about the Hudson River Almanac, which I did not but immediately subscribed to it. After seeing it I thought it would be great if we had something similar for Vassar community members to report wildlife sightings on Vassar property, not just the farm but the farm and golf course and surrounding woods and the wetlands behind my house at 75 Raymond.”

The Almanac is a catalogue of wildlife sightings and natural history news and events in the Hudson River Valley, and VC Nature will likely follow its precedent but with an educational bent. And for those who want to take up an active role with the newsletter, Kovari and his administrative associates offer up some tips for successful wildlife-spotting.

Professor Lois Horst of the Earth Science and Geography Department said of the newsletter’s format, “People may submit sightings–and they don’t need to include photos, it can just be descriptions of what they’ve seen–and the editor (at the moment Stephen Kovari ’19) will put together the information in a chronological order, adding explanatory notes as needed. We are hoping people will mention where on campus, or nearby, they saw whatever they are reporting and we are working on a map of the campus with designated areas (such as the Vassar Lake area, the TH area, the dorm quad, etc.), so that people can indicate where they saw something.”

Kovari elaborated on this: “The final format of VCNature will end up being a banner photo which will change with every issue, a few ‘featured observations,’ and then a list of the submissions we have received, with locations for each of the observations specific to an area of campus (eg. ‘TAs,’ ‘Golf Course,’ ‘Farm- North Wetlands’ and so on. Locations of sensitive species will be withheld). There will also be different sections, alternating between botany, geology, mushrooms, and whatever else is submitted. We also hope to have a section with relevant events. I’m willing to let the newsletter go where people want it to, though, and the organizational format will largely depend on the things people submit and ask to have included.”

Horst and Jemiolo both hope that VC Nature will serve as an outlet for those interested in the work done on the Farm and Preserve who haven’t yet found an opportunity to get involved.

Kovari remarked, “Dawn and dusk and the surrounding hour on either side are almost always the best. On the farm, the beaver pond is a great place to see a lot of wildlife. The old fields provide good vistas in the winter, so you can more easily spot an animal. Look for predators on the edges of forest and field or forest and wetland. In the summer, the beavers usually come out about an hour before sunset, providing a great opportunity to observe and photograph them and still be out of the preserve by the time it closes at dusk.

Horst echoes this, advising students to keep their eyes peeled in the early morning and around nightfall.

She added, “As far as best times to see wildlife, that would be soon after dawn and just around dusk. That’s when there is the most activity among mammals and some of the birds. But, honestly, just keeping your eyes open whenever you move around campus will afford the best chance. There are always the happy surprises, like the time I was out walking during lunch and saw a couple of fox kits playing on the grass lawn to the south of Blodgett. Nature is everywhere! We just need to notice it.”

Professor Jemiolo agrees that the campus critters are all around us and easy to spot, as long as we put our screens away, look up and wait.